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The woman who's convincing Mumbai to farm in small flats

The CEO of her own business in her twenties, Priyanka Amar Shah represents a new generation of businesspersons.

Mumbai. A city with a human population of two crores. A city which has one of the highest population densities in the world. For decades it has been the engine of India’s economic growth. Here real estate has been more precious than gold (figuratively and sometimes even literally) for many, many years. Where buying a 500 square feet pigeonhole of a flat is difficult for many people.

It is in this overpopulated urban jungle that the good old kitchen garden (if you don’t know what that is, ask your parents!) is trying to gain a toehold. And it has found a champion in Priyanka Amar Shah, the founder of iKheti.

iKheti was born over a casual dinner-time conversation in late 2011.

At that time, Priyanka’s college, Welingkar Institute of Management, Mumbai, was organising a concept show called Dmagics. As part of the programme, every participant had to come up with a business idea, flesh it out by writing a business plan and then present their plan to a panel of judges. The judges included investors, senior working professionals and other experts. The idea was to foster entrepreneurial thinking in the students of the college. Priyanka signed on for it.

Over dinner one night, her brother Rahul said, ‘Why don’t you help people grow kitchen gardens?’

‘The idea seemed so logical and so apt for me, considering my upbringing. I took to it immediately,’ says Priyanka, recalling that life-changing moment. It was logical and apt because Priyanka had grown up with a kitchen garden at home. Her parents used to grow lemons, chillies and curry leaves in their flat and use them in their cooking.

She thought to herself that if her parents could maintain a kitchen garden in the limited space available in their flat, then so could the others who lived in similar apartments across Mumbai.

A kitchen garden (or “urban farm” as Priyanka calls it) promises quite a few benefits. It provides you with your private green area (your lung space) at home. It makes available chemical-free vegetables right at home, thereby reducing your dependence on the vegetable market.

Also, by “farming” small vegetables and herbs at home, you are bringing the farm-to-plate distance down to zero. Which is an environment-friendly move on your part for two reasons.

One, there is no wastage because of transportation. Two, as there is no transportation involved, the carbon footprint of the home-grown food is zero.

Finally, there is the cost element. By eliminating the cost of transportation and the commission payable to agents all along the food transportation chain, you save a bit of money too!

At a deeper level therefore, a kitchen garden encourages people to learn and practice a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle.

As a person who loves nature, the idea appealed to Priyanka. “I thought this would be a very good thing for a city which is so full of concrete and so devoid of plant life. I wanted to build a profitable business out of this idea.”

Priyanka decided to present the idea at Dmagics, the concept show. But first, she explained the idea to her faculty mentors in college and asked them what they thought about it. At first, they were somewhat taken aback – ‘Farming? And in the cramped houses of Mumbai! But where is the space?’ was their first reaction.

Upon hearing this, Priyanka showed them a few pictures of the plants her family had actually grown at home and explained that they would not take up much space at all. The clincher was the fact that many planters could be mounted on walls and even hung from the ceiling! They are widely used across homes in America and Europe.

When her professors saw the pictures, her idea started to make sense to them.

They were surprised that a good bit of ingenuity had gone into the design of a home farm. They discussed the idea amongst themselves and realised that it was possible to make a viable business out of it after all. They therefore selected it as one of the business ideas that would be presented to the panel of judges at Dmagics.

Taking this decision as a pat on her back, Priyanka and two of her classmates started doing the necessary groundwork to back up her idea. They began to build a robust case for a sustainable venture. She knew that the judges would ask a lot of questions; it would not be easy to convince these seasoned veterans of the viability and scalability of any idea.

Excerpted with permission from The Underage CEOs: Fascinating Stories of Young Indians Who Became CEOs in their Twenties, Ganesh V, HarperCollins India.

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